It just takes a little planning and patience to pull off.
Comparing meringue to a cloud is a cliché. Yet pondering the whorls and curlicues of a meringue-topped pie is like seeing shapes in the clouds. A pinwheel? A surfer's wave?
Its texture is as ephemeral as vapor. A knife slides as if cutting through fog. Like a sky full of cumulus, meringue lightens our hearts. We float, if only for as long as it takes to finish that last bite.
A lemon meringue pie's sweet froth and tart citrus is a heavenly combo. The techniques aren't difficult, but do ask for some organization and patience because a freshly whipped meringue needs to go on a still-warm filling to help "cook" the egg whites.
Yet the whole process doesn't take long once all the ingredients are in place -- and frankly, there's something satisfying about having everything ready at your fingertips.
Start by pre-baking the crust. Roll out a favorite homemade recipe or choose one of the excellent ready-mades in the dairy or freezer case. Prick the bottom several times with a fork, then lay a sheet of aluminum foil in the pan and pour in some dried beans to keep the empty crust from bulging in the hot oven.
Now, assemble two stations: one with the filling ingredients, and the other with the meringue ingredients. The common factor is eggs, divided, with the yolks for the filling and the whites for the topping.
Make the filling first, bringing the ingredients to a boil. Stir constantly and briskly to keep any lumps from forming. Don't be timid, for it will thicken quite suddenly.
Here comes the first need for patience. You can't dump the yolks into the hot filling all at once or they'll curdle. The solution is to warm them a bit by adding several spoonfuls of hot filling, whisking all the while. Then the warmed yolks can be whisked into the pan of filling and cooked a few more minutes until thick.
Now to the meringue, and the second need for patience: The sugar must be added slowly enough to fully dissolve. We're only talking about a few minutes, but when you're dribbling sugar into a mixer, it's tempting to hurry things along. Don't.
Meringues are simply egg whites, cream of tartar and sugar, but for the loftiest and most stable pompadour, we also add a paste of cornstarch and water, cooked until just thickened.
Pour the warm filling into the crust, then immediately cover with meringue, making sure there are no gaps along the crust, which might cause the topping to shrink. With the back of a spoon, dip and lift small waves of meringue, letting the tips curl. Don't overwork it; a few swoops and curlicues are all you need.
This pie needs to thoroughly cool on a wire rack for several hours, but that means it can be done early in the day and held in the refrigerator. A final tip: Slicing it with a sharp knife dipped in hot water will make the cleanest cut.
Now you can think of heaping meringue on all sorts of pies, from sour-cream/raisin to key lime to chocolate pudding.
The sky's the limit.
Lemon Meringue Pie
Serves 8. This pie is best served the day it's made. After cooling thoroughly, keep it in the refrigerator. Slice with a sharp knife dipped in hot water. You can make your own superfine sugar by whirring granulated sugar in a food processor or blender for 1 minute. (Drape with a dish towel to contain any sugar dust.) Recipe adapted from "The Joy of Cooking."
For the cornstarch paste:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
For the crust:
Homemade or pre-made pie crust for 9-inch pie
For the filling:
2 to 3 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)